DURING the week, two executives of Quinn Industrial Holdings said the border region was “perilously close” to becoming lawless. During the Troubles, the region was pretty lawless, or so it appeared when novelist Colm Toibin met Seán Quinn in 1987.
Toibin was walking along the border, a journey that he and photographer Tony O’Shea documented in the book, Bad Blood: A Walk Along The Irish Border. On their travels, they encountered blown-up bridges, communities living in fear, and British soldiers on patrol, some fearful, others intent on instilling fear. And then, Seán Quinn, a local hero.
“His fame had spread far and wide, not just as an employer, a success story and a name over lorries, but as a man who hit a British soldier at a checkpoint, knocked him over, and drove on,” Toibin wrote. “The soldier was black, according to some in the pub the previous night. Everyone agreed that there had been no retaliation. He was too important, Seán Quinn.”
The budding millionaire confirmed to the writer that, yes, he had punched a soldier who had detained him too long at a checkpoint. Quinn built an empire across the lawless border, based between Derrylin, in Fermanagh, and Ballyconnell, in Cavan. At the time, the IRA had a hold over the communities that straddled the divide between north and south.
Nobody was going to invest in an area where the local thug with a gun would be dipping into profits. But Quinn persevered. He gave employment, hope, and a reason for staying at home, to more than a thousand local people.
His net worth eventually soared into the billions. And then he lost it all,a decade ago, through reckless gambling on bank shares. The local community gathered around him. Rallies attracted thousands, among them prominent GAA figures. Quinn’s bitter refrain that he and his family were being hounded by forces of the state was met with knowing nods and sympathy. Quinn was still a hero, a chieftain who had led his border people out of hopelessness.
Within a few years, the Quinn companies had been rescued, through a combination of outside investment and input from executives who had worked under Quinn. Quinn was given an advisory role in the new entity, a recognition of what he had done for the community. But the chieftain was intent on turning back the clock. In the end, he had to part ways with the new entity and his old subordinates.
Then, the violence and intimidation began, perpetrated, apparently, by elements who wanted the clock turned back to when Seán was in charge.Quinn has always denied any link to those who purported to be in sympathy with him.
The thuggery has had echoes of the lawlessness during the Troubles. The abduction and brutal beating of QIH executive, Kevin Lunney, calls to mind the IRA, although this attack far exceeded in savagery the punishment beatings summarily meted out by paramilitaries.
Terror has found new modes of communication, since the bad old days. Earlier this year, the Seán Quinn Community Group Facebook page — from which Quinn has completely disassociated himself or his family — published the following: “In the early eighties, we had the notorious Shankill Butchers, based in Belfast. They were led by a man called Lenny Murphy. Now...based in Derrylin, we have the Derrylin Butchers and continue to stab Sean Quinn in the back.
“This gang is led by local men, Kevin Lunney and Liam McCaffery, and with the help of Tony Lunney, John McCartin and Dara O’Reilly. All pictured below. Rumour has it they have gone through a kangaroo court and have been found guilty.
The death threats issued this week to QIH executives recall the ‘leave or die’notices served by the IRA to Protestants in remote areas along the border. Different agenda, same terror.
Seán Quinn has repeatedly condemned the violence, describing the attack on Lunney as “barbaric” and “despicable”. There is not a scintilla of evidence to connect him to anything perpetrated and he has stated that he has always been opposed to violence. But somebody out there is acting with a motivation that is sympathetic to what he or she believes to be Quinn’s plight.
Executives at QIH, including McCaffrey, and parish priest Oliver O’Reilly, have made references to a “paymaster”, who is behind the violence and intimidation. According to Quinn, this individual, if he or she exists, is acting contrary to the values and interests of the Quinn family. Following the abduction and attack on Kevin Lunney, Quinn noted that “my family is outraged, as well, and they fear that we will take the flack for this”.
Yet it could also be argued that the motivation of this “paymaster” may well have been heightened by Quinn’s oft publicly expressed bitterness towards those who now run QIH. Even as he condemned the Lunney attack, he noted that “these guys sacked me over three years ago”.
Later, in an interview with Channel 4, Quinn again criticised the executives, which drew the following response from Liam McCaffrey.
“The interview was around his denial of any hand, act or part in this, but to take that opportunity to make a further critical comment, under the circumstances where Kevin has been beaten within an inch of his life — and Kevin and the remaining directors threatened with death — I thought it was an extraordinary statement,” McCaffrey told the Irish Times.
What would the “paymaster” have made of that?
Within days of McCaffrey’s comment, a further death threat was issued to the executives. Could the paymaster be parsing Quinn’s public comments to reinforce his or her warped justification for continuing the terror? Quinn bears no direct responsibility for the actions of some deluded thug, but loose words were often used by others to pursue violent actions during the Troubles. How many young loyalists went out to kill after being wound up by Ian Paisley?
Seán Quinn is no longer a chieftain.He lost his fortune; now he appears to have lost his people. He is not responsible for the actions of depraved individuals, but he should beware that, even today, his utterances, omissions, or subtle hints can still have an influence on some who hanker for the lawless past.